Writers/directors: Simon Maedar and Adam El Hagar
Reviewer: Scott Matthewman
Band biographies are a tried and tested form of jukebox musical these days, the West End currently playing host to Jersey Boys, Sunny Afternoon and Beautiful. When the subject matter is a white Jewish hip-hop group from New York, the idea of transforming their story into a musical is clearly ridiculous. And so, Licensed to Ill takes the comedy approach, summarising the story of The Beastie Boys with humour, puppetry and audience participation.
Devised by Simon Maedar and Adam El Hagar, who also star as band members Mike D and Adam ‘MCA’ Yaulch, the show starts as an irreverent take on the group’s history. Joined by Daniel Foxsmith as the third member of the trio, AdRock, and Tope Mikun as pretty much everybody else, the ramshackle approach to storytelling has an anarchic Fringe approach in the vein of Potted Potter or the Reduced Shakespeare Company.
And yet, the story sticks as closely as it can in the time available to the group’s story, emerging out of the punk scene and transforming into a hip-hop band before signing with Def Jam Recordings, whose larger-than-life head, Rick Rubin, is actually portrayed by a larger-than-life puppet head. As the group’s success sees them move to Capitol Records and their second album, Paul’s Boutique, loses the label a lot of money, the trio keeps the laughs coming as well as performing a series of spot-on performances of the Beasties’ best-known songs.
Those song performances elevate Licensed to Ill from being just another comedy Fringe show to a sign that this piece has been put together with evident love for the band. With the requisite combination of rock and hip-hop DJing, Maedar, El Hagar and Foxsmith deliver the sort of performance that a genuine tribute band would bring. While the numbers are delivered without the tongue-in-cheek humour of the rest of the show, they retain the Beastie Boys’ own flair for humorous lyrics, of course, meaning that the songs’ “straight” performances do not impinge too weightily on the humorous tone.
But the need to tell the Boys’ full story means that the humour, and the songs, struggle to keep up with life. As Yaulch tells his fans of his cancer diagnosis and the show must deal with his death, the structure of Licensed to Ill begins to fall apart somewhat. As a result, the ending of the show, while touching, doesn’t quite deliver the punchiness of a finale that the rest of the evening deserves. But tailing off from the highs of the production’s opening still leaves the show as an enjoyable whole.
Runs until 12 December 2015 | Image: Contributed